AMHERST, Mass. — Sixty centimeters below the surface of the lawn, close to an area where a well supplied water to Emily Dickinson’s home, a seemingly intact flowerpot dating to the 19th century is uncovered.
Students in the Summer Field School of the University of Massachusetts Historical Archaeology program, who are handling the excavation on the grounds of the Emily Dickinson Museum, will carefully remove the upside down pot, keeping the soil inside it so an archaeobotanist can analyze its contents.
While it is unknown what this detailed examination that is focused on seeds and pollen will show when the soil is brought to a lab, one possibility for the flowerpot’s origin is inside the Homestead.
“If it has a hyacinth in it, it could have come directly from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom,” said Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum.
Finding out what lies below the ground at the Main Street property, including plant life from a century or more ago, is part of a continuing effort to understand what life was like during the famed poet’s lifetime, and improve the experience for visitors by showcasing a more authentic setting.
“The purpose of this for the museum is to help us formulate restoration programs and strategies,” Wald said. “This can help us prepare plans for restoration of other features of the landscape and the Homestead that were part of Emily Dickinson’s everyday life.”
Julie Woods and Daniel Zoto are the co-directors of the Summer Field School, guiding four students through five weeks on the site. They have opened up two “excavation units,” each a meter square and between 55 and 60 centimeters deep.
The one to the east is aimed at finding the well, while the one to the west is seeking the location of a corner of the barn that was behind the Homestead but demolished sometime after 1916. The excavation resumes work that began last year.
In both cases, the digs are done using information from Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily Dickinson’s niece, who wrote about the property and in the 1930s drew sketches of what the original barn looked like. She described the interior layout, down to the pig stall, Wald said. Fire insurance maps are also being used to pinpoint the location of the barn.
Though the well has not yet been found, Zoto said the flowerpot is a good find, along with ashen gray sand that is “chock full” of artifacts and charred and uncharred wood.
Zoto said this could mean the area was a refuse deposit, but it could also be more significant. “We don’t know what it represents yet,” Zoto said.
Woods said the archaeologists have also pulled out from this hole bits of coal and coal slag, shards of ceramics, and architectural elements from the barn, including nails.
In the other dig, an anomaly in the soil color fill indicates where the perimeter of the building may have been before the foundation stones were removed, likely after the barn was demolished, Zoto said.
In addition to the current excavation units, there will be digs closer to where gardens once existed as part of bringing the garden landscape back to what it was like during Dickinson’s lifetime.
Like the barn, the information about the gardens and orchard comes from Bianchi’s recollections and writings.
The archaeologists will dig a long trench across a path that leads from the Homestead to the current garden and orchard. They will then try to identify the edge of the garden and what the layout of the gardens may have been during Dickinson’s lifetime.
“For us, we want to understand as much as we can,” Wald said. “How big was the garden, what did they grow, what did it take to maintain it?”
It may add to the knowledge of how the family grew its own fruits and vegetables, as well as the food the home’s occupants purchased at shops in the center of town.
Like the flowerpot, the soils from the garden will be examined by archaeobotanist Ally Mitchem from the University of Pennsylvania.
Soil samples will be analyzed for organic matter and Mitchem will then use laboratory equipment to identify the precise plants, both ornamental and food plants, grown in the 19th century. Woods said this is done by a process in which light and heavy fraction are separated, with the seed and pollen and other organic elements rising to the top to be identified.
Wald said previous digs have paid dividends. Prior to the rebuilding of the conservatory that opened this spring, the Massachusetts Historical Commission required an excavation. That uncovered the original foundation and nails that showed the conservatory’s floor was likely made from wood.
Information from: Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.), http://www.gazettenet.com